Disability and the Criminal Justice System

Published on: March 25, 2020

Individuals with both physical and mental health disabilities are especially susceptible to criminalization and discrimination by law enforcement. Incarcerated people with disabilities are disproportionately arrested and mistreated compared to those incarcerated with no disabilities.  

According to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2015, the violent victimization against people with disabilities was 2.5 times higher than for people without disabilities throughout 2009 - 2015. This report, which gathered information from nationally representative data from the National Crime Victimization Survey, also found the average rate of violent victimization against prisoners with disabilities was 32 per 1,000 compared to 13 per 1,000 for people without disabilities. 

However, reports are not only indicating the disproportionate amount of disabled individuals incarcerated, but that the criminal justice system may not be supporting their needs and rights to be heard. 

Disability and Incarceration

People with disabilities are disproportionately represented in the prison system. According to a study of the years 2011-2012, an estimated 32% of prisoners and 40% of jail inmates reported having at least one of the following six disability types: hearing, vision, cognitive, ambulatory, self-care, and independent living. The study also found that of the inmates and prisoners who reported having at least one disability, more than half of them (54% of prisoners and 53% of jail inmates) reported a co-occurring chronic condition.  

Chronic conditions additionally affect inmates that do not report disabilities. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported in 2012 that 40% of state and federal prisoners disclosed having a chronic illness. Though chronic illness itself may not make a person disabled, it can cause serious obstacles to everyday tasks. 

Inability for Jails to Provide Needs

With high amounts of both state and federal inmates and prisoners with disabilities, there is an unfortunate lack of resources and accommodations for their needs. Since jails do not have the facilities of a mental hospital, inmates with mental disabilities are given inadequate treatments. A study conducted in 2017 by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that nearly half of inmates suffered from some form of mental illness; more than a quarter have a severe condition, such as bipolar disorder. 

Though prisons and jails are judicially mandated to provide standard medical care, there have not been any in-depth studies conducted on the quality of the treatment. 

However, there have been reports of cases where prisons deem accommodations no longer “medically necessary’” to reduce costs. The Amplifying Voices of Inmates with Disabilities (AVID) Prison Project reported that these accommodations ruled to be non essential include exercise equipment, prosthetics, wheelchairs and other forms of assistive technology. 

Disability and Prison Abuse

Incarcerated prisoners with disabilities may be subject to higher rates of abuse than their non-disabled counterparts. The AVID prison project also reported higher rates of forced segregation among the disabled. 

Disabilities were a cause for segregation of inmates in state prison systems. Segregation can include solitary confinement for up to 24 hours a day in a small cell and can last for an indefinite amount of time. Inmates in solitary confinement are not allowed the same services and programs accessible to those outside of confinement, which can be extremely detrimental to a disabled inmate’s condition and physical health.

Additionally, prisoners who are segregated from others from long periods of time can develop damaging mental health conditions, such as panic attacks, anxiety, paranoia, and social withdrawal to name a few. However, a concerning element of solitary confinement is the barrier to necessary medical care when needed. Prisoners who are isolated from staff and other inmates may experience a medical emergency and go undetected due to being isolated. 

Segregation and solitary isolation for inmates with disabilities may result in life-threatening medical situations. Also, the inactivity that comes along with solitary confinement may exacerbate chronic conditions and cause them to worsen. 

Police and Disability Discrimination

Though police violence and misconduct has been heavily scrutinized lately, a major issue commonly overlooked is the relationship between disability and police brutality. Unfortunately, data suggests that there is high amounts of unnecessary  police and disability discrimination.

Evidence suggests that people with disabilities amount to one-third to one-half of all deaths at the hands of law enforcement. In 2015, the Washington Post  reported that one quarter of people shot to death by police had mental health disabilities. 

Since most law enforcement are not adequately trained to interact with people with communication disabilities, whether sensory or cognitive, conflicts frequently escalate when police do not know how to appropriately respond. The Ruderman Family Foundation released a report on police violence in 2016 and found that people with disabilities are:

...being subjected to a disproportionate use of force by our police and many of these encounters are leading to unnecessary deaths. Police forces need better practices, policies and procedures when interacting with people with disabilities so that harm by our law enforcement authorities is prevented,.

Altercations between police and the disabled frequently become violent when police do not understand disabilities. In 2010, woodcarver John Williams was shot to death by a police officer after he did not respond to orders to drop his knife. However, Williams was deaf. He was walking down the street with a legal-limit sized knife and a block of wood, carving an eagle, when he was approached from behind. 

Wheelchair user Brian Sterner was thrown from his wheelchair by an officer in 2008 on the assumption that he was using the chair to gain sympathy. In reality, Sterner was a quadriplegic and broke several ribs as a result. 

“She looked at me and didn’t believe I was a quadriplegic, I guess,” he was quoted as saying. 

When police are not given proper training to handle a crisis with people with disabilities, tragedy can result. People reverting to force due to perceived notions of criminalized disability and lack of understanding will only cause more harm to people with disabilities. 

Legal Rights of the Disabled 

As a person with disabilities, it’s important to understand your rights so you can protect yourself. If you or a loved one is incarcerated with disabilities, it’s crucial to know the laws that protect you and what services you are entitled to. 

Disabled Inmate/ Prisoner Rights

According to the ACLU, it is discriminatory to fail to provide medical devices and services such as wheelchairs and sign language interpreters to inmates and prisoners with disabilities, and to be excluded from facilities and programs accessible to others. 

Additionally, inmates and prisoners with disabilities are protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Entitlements include effective communication, including Braille and sign language interpreters, equal opportunity for programs, and safe housing. 

When arresting a disabled person, it is unlawful for law enforcement to discriminate under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Police officers and other public entities should be aware that a person with a disability, whether an ADA-approved disability or another disability, puts them in a greater position of vulnerability and should be treated with these considerations in mind. For reforms to be made with disability and the criminal justice system, officers need to accommodate these disabilities without compromising the safety of police and the disabled or anyone else involved.

If you feel as if your rights were violated, there are several options you can turn to. Depending on the situation, people with disabilities may file claims under the Eighth Amendment. ADA, or the Rehabilitation Act. 

At Disability Experts of Florida, we continue to protect and support the rights of all disabled Americans. If you feel your rights have been violated or would like more information about disability benefits, speak with one of our caring advocates today.


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